The Dhammazedi Bell

Audio

First broadcast on the BBC in October 2015, The Dhammazedi Bell was commissioned by Radio 3’s experimental radio slot Between the Ears. 

Summary

Legend has it that the largest bell in the world rests at the bottom of a Myanmar river. Cast by King Dhammazedi in the 1400s the great bell was said to be made of bronze and weigh 200 tons.

Two hundred years after it was cast, the bell was stolen by a Portuguese general from where it hung at Yangon’s golden Schwedagon Pagoda. He rolled it onto a raft and tried to sail it across the wide Bago river. But as the raft crossed the river the great bell rolled off sinking down to the bottom of the riverbed where it has remained submerged for the last 400 years.

Myths have grown up around the bell. Does a green dragon spirit protect it? Will it only rise again when the right leader comes to power? And do those who try to take the bell always come to great harm? 

November 2015 saw the freest general elections in Myanmar of its 50 years of military dictatorship. As the parties scrambled to convince their people to vote was this the right time for the giant bell to rise?

The Dhammazedi bell juxtaposes the story of the bell and its many rescue attempts with the modern story of Burma and its 2015 election. 

As the candidates outline their manifestos to the people with constitutional hurdles still in place, we learn of the bell’s various salvage attempts.

U Kyaing was the first to dive for the bell in the 1980s. The murky sludge of the river meant he saw nothing as he swam down through the waters. Dressed only in his underwear and navigating only by touch U Kyaing found shipwrecks upon shipwreck, but not the bell.

Then came an American maverick called Jim Blunt, aided by the latest sonar equipment. But despite diving down in the river over 100 times, again no bell was found. 

Then in 2014 two rescue attempts at once but with very different tactics. One of the most venerated monks in the country Kyaik Htee Saung Sayadaw had had a vision –  the  bell was under the ground. A dream told him the river had changed course and that bell was now under the earth inland. A team of monks and construction workers dug by the side of the river for six months. The venerated monk felt something, but nothing was found. 

At the same time an ex-navy diver U San Lin had set off his own rescue expedition. Recruiting local shopkeepers and farmers to try their hand at diving, he set off to the river. Crowds watched on from the riverbanks as goods were carried on the river to appease the bell’s green dragon keeper. Coconuts, bananas and milk poured into the river to feed the green dragon spirit. 

As the election looms and the world watches on, is now the time for the fabled bell to rise?

The Dhammazedi Bell won a Whicker award in 2016.